Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Armadillo Enters Lunar Lander Challenge

Well, Armadillo Aerospace (one of my personal favorite space travel startups) has just announced their entry into the X-Prize foundation's Lunar Lander Challenge.

This comes as no surprise, as Armadillo Aerospace was the only entrant to fly in the 2006 and 2007 X-Prize Cups, similar to this challenge. The Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge will take place in the New Mexico desert in late October. The challenge is designed to get people to construct vehicles with lunar-lander-like capabilities. There are two levels to the competition. Level 1 challenges entrants to construct a craft to take off, hover at 50 meters for 90 seconds, land on a spot 50 meters away, then do the entire thing in reverse, all within two and a half hours. Level 2 requires the craft to hover twice as long and land on a simulated lunar surface full of boulders and craters. Level 2 in particular is designed to simulate the capabilities needed for a real lunar mission.

The previous (and very similar) X-Prize Cups have had no winners. However, in the 2007 X-Prize Cup, Armadillo Aerospace only missed winning the Level 1 competition by 7 seconds.

I figure I should talk a little more about this company; I haven't spoken much about them in the past, but I've been following their progress, and they're pretty impressive.

Armadillo Aerospace was founded in the year 2000 by a group of volunteers dedicated to developing the technology to allow tourists to fly into space (which is, of course, why I talk about them here). They are still a very small group of (mostly) volunteers, operating out of Dallas, Texas. However, their group is very specialized, and they've done some very impressive things considering their size.

Their philosophy on rocket design is inspired from typical software design (not surprising, since one of their members, Jack Carmack, is a well known computer game designer). They design a simple rocket, build it and test it relatively quickly, then design the next one to weed out the bugs and add new features. This method seems to have been serving them well, as it has allowed them to test many, many designs and arrive at relatively advanced rockets without years of research and feasibility studies. They have even done work for NASA and the Air Force, whose methods they have poo-pooed for being way too slow (this is the common argument that most space tourism start-ups use about the government). Also, they have a philosophy of completely admitting it and talking about it when they screw up, which does happen quite often. I think this serves them well.

After the Lunar Lander challenge, Armadillo Aerospace plans on beginning design and construction of its first modular rocket prototype, a later generation of which they hope will take people into space. At about $200,000 a pop, of course.

Progress: 4.03%  Flight Time: 0:06:05

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